Our Father, who art in heaven
Does anyone ask to be taught how to pray anymore? I never did. But whenever I am stuck or overwhelmed or don’t know what to say, I return to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. People ask the question, “Did Jesus intend for us to pray these words exactly or to use this as a pattern?” I say, “Yes.” If you find yourself needing a starting point, look no further. Over the next several posts, I’m going to look at what I’ve noticed about the Lord’s Prayer, phrase by phrase, and how this impacts my own prayers.
Our Father, who art in heaven…
The prayer begins with “our” Father. There is no time during the prayer when it is “just God and me.” The Lord’s Prayer springs from the life of the church, and is prayed by the church. That is, Christ gave this teaching to all of us not just to teach us about prayer, but to teach us about who we are. We are first bound together with those who also call God “Father” because of what Christ has done.
I also notice that Jesus inserts himself into the prayer. He is not “your Father” but ours. He is God the Father as revealed by Christ the Son, and is our Father because we have been adopted as His sons and daughters. Some have mistakenly assumed that every person on earth is a child of God, perhaps because God created all people. In one very minute sense this is true. But biblical witness tells us that it is through relationship with the Son that we can pray to the Father. John 1:12-13, for instance, says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Israel called God “Father” as a nation first. This is Exodus 4:22-23, where the LORD calls Israel His firstborn son. God’s first fatherly act was the deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’ prayer reminds us that there is a second exodus, and to call God “Father” means that not only does He see your need for rescuing, but you see it too. You are not asking anyone else to save you. You are not trying to save yourself. You are asking God to save you.
Jesus reminds us that all prayer is personal. Prayer is first and foremost about relationship with God. We do not start prayer simply by saying “God,” even though He is our God. “God” can refer to any god and we can assign to “god” any characteristic we want. Muslims pray to god, Allah, but he is not “our Father.” Jesus used “Father,” a word we see in Aramaic elsewhere in Scripture as “Abba,” which was used by adult Jewish men to speak to their fathers. It was not just a word used by children. There is no point in which we mature or grow old enough to abstain from calling God “Father.”
It is at this point that we must shed our tendencies to make God the Father into the image of our earthly fathers. Perhaps one of the reasons Christ calls God “our Father” is not because it’s true, but because He knew we would be people with skewed, broken, and damaged relationships with our parents. Donald Miller wrote a book called “Father Fiction” about our fatherless generation and the men who “fathered” him along. I personally have come to see God as the Father who is and does what my dad cannot be and do, and He has given me more of His perspective on how my dad “failed.” I have more grace and a great friendship with my dad. In prayer to our Father, God begins to heal wounds we’ve had from our fathers.
Calling God “Father” is more than intimacy with Him. It certainly reflects our close relationship with our heavenly Father, the One who fathers us in ways that our earthly fathers may or may not have tried to imitate. And yet this probably was not Jesus’ only point in instructing us to pray to God our Father. N.T. Wright says, “Saying ‘our father’ isn’t just the boldness, the sheer cheek, of walking into the presence of the living and almighty God and saying ‘Hi, Dad.’ It is the boldness, the sheer total risk, of saying quietly, ‘Please may I, too, be considered an apprentice son.’ It means signing on for the Kingdom of God.”
The Father’s presence in heaven means He transcends all that is on earth. Thus, on one hand, He is our Father, the Father of Israel who redeemed His people from slavery in Egypt; on the other, He remains seated in heaven, governing creation and in sovereign control of life. He is both personal and close and transcendent and other. As we pray the rest of the prayer, we have confidence that His kingship in heaven means His ability to answer the other petitions. It also means we don’t get to use Him for our agendas.